Omega-3 fats are polyunsaturated fatty acids that can be found in food and in supplement form that are essential to help our bodies function.
They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation.
There are three omega-3s that a majority of research has focused on, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is essential, our bodies are unable to make it, so it needs to be consumed through the diet.
Our bodies can convert ALA to EPA then to DHA; however, with the limited studies that focus on omega-3 status of vegetarians and vegans, it's unclear what the optimal level of EPA and DHA is. Current recommendations only address ALA.
Current omega-3 recommendations
The National Academy of Medicine, formerly Institute of Medicine, has only established recommendations for Omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
The recommendations are from one year and older with adult males needing 1600 mg, females 1100 mg, and greater levels for pregnancy and lactation at 1400 mg and 1300 mg respectively. For the full chart, see here.
You don't need fish
What might be surprising is learning that you don't need fish or animal sources to obtain these fatty acids. Most ALA is found in plant foods like chia, flax, and hemp seeds, soy foods and walnuts. While EPA and DHA are found in fish and algae.
It's important to note that fish don’t make EPA and DHA, they source it from algae.
Most research has been done on fish or fish oil, which might lead people to think you need fish. However, it can be directly sourced sustainably from the microalgae that they consume without harming fish or the ecosystem.
What about EPA and DHA?
According to the National Institutes of Health, 'by far, the majority of research has focused on EPA and DHA from foods (e.g., fish) and/or dietary supplements (e.g., fish oil) as opposed to ALA from plant-based foods'.
Since there aren't guidelines or sufficient research for EPA and DHA on plant-based food conversions, many plant-based experts have recommended doubling the ALA recommendations or taking a supplement for good measure.
It might seem intimidating, but actually quite easy to meet. Just 1 tsp of chia seeds has about 700 mg and 1 tsp of flaxseed oil has about 2400 mg when considering adult male needs at 1600 mg and female at 1100 mg. Learn more here for other sources. ?
To Supplement or Not to Supplement
Everyone processes and converts differently and certain groups may have lower conversion rates, such as smokers, people with chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension and those who have a higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.
If your concern is specific to maintaining adequate levels of EPA and DHA, you may want to consider taking a microalgae supplement.